Hi, I’m Tony! I’m the Community Program Manager at Team SPI.
Since 2015, I’ve been hosting online video gatherings ranging from weekly mastermind groups to multi-hundred-person conferences over Zoom and other platforms. I’m always looking for the best possible tools to help people connect in meaningful ways.
When the pandemic hit, it seems that just about everything in life suddenly ended up on Zoom—and about five minutes later, we were already burned out on all of it.
I had the benefit of using Zoom for my work for several years before all this happened, so I was pretty comfortable with its strengths and weaknesses.
There’s a good reason it became the pandemic go-to—it combines a powerful set of features with solid reliability and a (usually) clean user experience.
But you’re not reading this because you’re totally satisfied with your Zoom experience. There has to be something better out there, right?
The answer to that, of course, depends on you and what you’re looking to do.
The case for and against using Zoom
While I’m a big fan of Zoom, I’ve also been searching hard for the best alternatives depending on the different needs of the various meetings and events I host online.
Benefits of Zoom
Some of Zoom’s key strengths:
- It’s established. So many people have learned how to use Zoom already, so you can build on that convenience.
- It’s (pretty) affordable. For ~$15 per month, you get an incredibly powerful platform with a lot of tools.
- It works well. Part of what fed Zoom’s success was its ability to do exactly what it sets out to do, as well as or better than just about everyone else. They thought through the user experience and removed barriers left and right, making quality video meetings dead easy to host. They’re tops for a reason!
- It’s got powerful features. When you get comfortable with Zoom’s capabilities, you can do some pretty sophisticated things. Breakout rooms, advanced screen sharing capabilities, polls, live streaming, and more allow you to go as far as hosting whole conferences.
Disadvantages of Zoom
Some reasons why you might not want to use Zoom:
- Cost. The free level only lets you host meetings for 40 minutes at a time.
- Software requirements. Hosts require software to be installed.
- No perpetual room. Each meeting has a start and end time.
- No P2P network. People join or leave meetings, but there’s no way to connect outside that.
- Wonky breakout rooms. While Zoom has powerful breakout room features, it’s easy for things to go haywire if you’re not careful.
- Lack of event production features. Zoom is functional, but it doesn’t give you the tools to produce a slick, professional-looking event.
With this in mind, I wanted to offer you an overview of some of the best platforms I’ve found, based on how your needs contrast with what Zoom has to offer.
Note: This landscape is changing constantly. New platforms are coming out every single day, and existing ones are launching new features continuously. Consider this a snapshot of my subjective opinion!
Alternative to Zoom by Category
No installation is needed and entirely web-based. Simply pop open a browser window and go!
Google’s approach to video meetings used to drive me crazy. For years, they struggled to nail down a consistent strategy, changing brands and rearranging their interfaces to the point where it was just all too confusing.
Not long after the pandemic hit, however, they finally found a sweet spot—offering just enough functionality and a clean, sensible interface that put the tools I needed in just the right spots.
Forcing integration into Google Calendar, annoying as it may be to a non-Meet user, does make it that much more convenient to book a meeting with a handy link without having to leave the calendar app.
My biggest caveat with Google Meet has been in its CPU usage. While in recent weeks I haven’t noticed as much of an issue, I have had months-long stretches when using Google Meet meant spiking my not-that-old computer’s CPU and slowing everything else to a crawl.
If you decide to try it, keep an eye on how it operates on your machine!
One of the early entrants into browser-based meeting, join.me differentiated themselves by their emphasis on being lightweight and easy. If you’re looking for something simple, especially for one-off meetings, join.me is here for you!
ZipMessage (affiliate link)
Give your clients more face time without more live calls by swapping video, audio, or text messages with clients and giving them the attention they deserve without jamming up your calendar. A full calendar can leave little time for actual work—instead send your messages asynchronously.
Team and Client Collaboration
If you largely have a consistent team of trusted people you want to communicate with (and enable communications between), team-oriented platforms have been aggressively upgrading their video capabilities.
If you’re already in a shared Slack channel with the people you talk to over video, you could cut Zoom out of the loop altogether and do your calls straight through Slack. The interface is relatively lightweight compared to Zoom’s features, but the convenience can’t be beaten.
Originally a hit with the gaming community, Discord pushed the envelope with chat-oriented team channel spaces to the point where businesses have started to take notice. While chat is the default mode of engagement, adding voice and video are easy, with customizations galore.
Remember Skype? They’ve been in the game longer than anyone. While they’ve dealt with more than a fair share of Microsoft-imposed bloat, Skype has remained a consistent, hardened option for people who need to communicate—especially when you might be mixing international calling with your team chats.
Are you looking for something that supports the wider needs of a larger organization? Zoom’s been building out its enterprise offerings, but others live and breathe it.
Opinions may vary widely about the experience of Teams, but it’s clear Microsoft has invested heavily in becoming one of the heaviest hitters in enterprise communications. Microsoft Teams offers many of the features other platforms have but plays particularly nicely with Microsoft-oriented businesses.
There are a wide array of corporate-oriented platforms. If you’re looking to make a decision that affects the wider business needs of your organization, I won’t try to tell you which way to go—research the platforms that are out there, define your feature needs, do the demos, and the best answer will emerge.
I’m as excited about Gatheround as I am about any meeting software platform I’ve seen. They clearly designed the experience specifically to make it easy for people to connect and cultivate meaningful relationships—you can create time-based breakout rooms where people are presented with card-based discussion prompts in either small groups or 1:1 rooms.
A lobby area offers a great transitional space between breakouts, where a combination of chat and stage area (that others can join with permission) encourages social interaction that just feels different.
If you need a more complete conference-level experience, where each talk can have its own landing page, HeySummit has you covered. You still need another provider to handle the video (Zoom, YouTube, Vimeo, etc.), but HeySummit wraps it in a nice user-friendly shell.
(Disclosure: The folks at HeySummit are good friends of ours.)
Virtual Gathering Spaces
The world of “proximity chat” has come a long way—from a niche community of super-online escapists to a mainstream tool for virtual conferences and more. These video game-like environments allow you to create a sense of place, where people can explore and bump into each other.
On these platforms, when people’s avatars come into close proximity to one another, their videos come into focus, so you can talk to only those who are “near” you at any given moment. It’s kind of like real life!
Topia’s hand-drawn style is incredibly appealing to me, personally, because it stands in such contrast to everything else I’m used to seeing. It feels a little more nature-oriented. It helps me feel like I’m entering a special little world.
Its administrative interface is not for the faint of heart—you need to be willing to poke around and take your time to get to know how things work, and work around some of its features' more maddening constraints—but your patience will be rewarded with an experience, unlike anything most people have seen.
You can create a custom environment or use one of their templates, which I highly recommend—starting from scratch can be incredibly time-consuming, while their templates offer a great insight into the features they offer.
My other favorite proximity chat app is Gather.town. It’s a bit further along in terms of its development, but still has a lot of quirks when it comes to setup and administration. This world isn’t for the established corporate player just yet, but I expect some of these platforms will get there sometime soon!
Gather.town has a simplified, Legend of Zelda-like overhead view with a little digital avatar for each person. You can draw rooms, set up walls and floors and decor, and install interactive points where people can view videos, web pages, presentations, or even play a game together.
In Workfrom, you can create a perpetual “room” where people can come to hang out and work alongside one another. It’s explicitly not a space to hold a scheduled meeting: while cameras will be on, microphones are disabled. You can only talk to each other over chat, leaving your ears free to focus on the admin-chosen musical playlist while you do other things.
Custom wallpaper and simple discussion prompt in the chat round out an incredibly simple but truly powerful tool for creating a sense of shared presence among a team or small community.
Try everything! There are dozens of these platforms. Check out a giant list here.
No Video Needed
Video is a powerful tool when you’re gathering people remotely—it’s about as close as we can get to being together, even if it’s not nearly the same.
How many video meetings, however, actually need to be on video? There are a lot of reasons why someone might not want to be on video at a given time: physical comfort, being on the go, insecurity about their appearance or their environment, internet issues, slow computers, and more. If you can gather people without asking them to turn on their cameras, you can get a greater turnout and offer a more accessible experience.
What tools do you already have, or which could you use for non-video-related needs?
Along with Mumble, Free Conference Call does exactly what it says it does—with just a few hoops to jump through, you can have a dial-in number set up in no time.
That’s right—Zoom itself is actually a pretty powerful platform for facilitating audio-only phone conversations. If you’ve ever seen one of those big complicated boilerplate Zoom invitations, you’ve seen that Zoom offers call-in numbers for people to easily dial from their phones, without having to memorize and punch in meeting IDs and passcodes.
Once in the meeting, phone participants actually have a few useful controls available to them just through use of the number pad—even allowing participants to move in and out of breakout rooms.
To Zoom or Not to Zoom
In the end, Zoom is often the best answer, if not because of its quality execution and affordable price then simply because it’s the one people tend to be the most familiar with.
If you’re looking for something better, however, a whole lot of people are out there working hard to create products that offer you something different. Try different approaches using different platforms and invite friends or colleagues to experiment with you!